ANCHORAGE -- Business travelers and their companies may soon have an alternative for flights to the Russian Far East from Alaska, but not before local companies carefully survey the possibility for new business.
"We are going to make a business decision on this, but it will have to stand on its own," said Paul Landis, vice president of fixed wing operations at Era Aviation.
Landis engaged Zoomerang, an online marketing clearinghouse, to conduct a market survey from late December through mid-January on the possibility of Era offering service to the Russian Far East. The survey was prompted by the discontinuation of scheduled flights by Reeve Aleutian Airways for service statewide and flights to the Russian Far East, according to Landis. Reeve officials indicated they were experiencing some growth on their Russian Far East flights shortly before the company suspended flights just before Christmas.
Era stated in the survey's preface that it has a long history of service to the oil industry and has the capability of inter island and helicopter service on Sakhalin, but that it was moving ahead cautiously based on the experience of other carriers that are no longer serving the industry there.
In the meantime, Evergreen International Aviation Inc. is also considering adding a DC-9 jet for cargo to Adak and perhaps on to the Russian Far East as well. Local company officials indicate that the decision will be made on the corporate level.
Mavial or Magadan Airlines, a Russian carrier based in Magadan, has also voiced an interest in the additional routes in the Russian Far East, according to state of Alaska officials. Those officials said that Mavial operated four charter flights in December after discontinuing its monthly scheduled service between Anchorage and Magadan during December and January.
Era's Zoomerang Web survey starts out with a catchy, "Perhaps it is time for a new era in aviation support for Sakhalin. We are interested in your opinion."
Logical air carrier questions about frequency, seat demand, price and choice of departure airports are interspersed with personal opinion questions to be answered by the respondents. Era currently operates three main types of aircraft in its fixed wing fleet: the Convair 550, the Dash 8 and the deHavilland Twin Otter -- none of which have the necessary range for flights to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk or Petropavlosk.
What Era does have on hand is former Reeve chief pilot Phil Bray, who pioneered the Russian Far East routes for Reeve. Bray, now the director of operations for Era's fixed wing operation, did not return calls. He joined Era in November before Reeve's announcement to curtail scheduled service.
When asked about what equipment the airline would use if it decides to serve Sakhalin oil projects from Anchorage, Landis said that the decision would also be influenced by the survey and refused to discuss options. Era officials will make the decision sometime in the spring, according to Landis.
"We are inclined to lean toward contract charter services for flights," added the Era vice president. "This will help underwrite the cost of the service."
The departure of Reeve has forced Russian Far East passengers and freight forwarders to use a very long and expensive route from Japan through Korea that ends up with a connection to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Korea-based Asiana Airlines.
"This is ridiculous. I have to fly four days to do three days of work," said Keith Burke, president of Natchiq/Sakhalin LLC.
Reeve was also providing lift for local forwarders Lynden Air Freight and Panalpina, both of whom specialize in oversized industrial cargo.
"This caught us completely by surprise," said Jeff Berliner, trade specialist with the state's International Trade and Market Development office. "We knew that Reeve was in negotiation with investors, but we were not prepared for this. We are currently having discussion with state, federal and private sector on how to respond to this challenge."
Berliner added that in addition to Mavial having an interest, Aeroflot officials have reportedly surfaced and may be rethinking their decision to pull their Russia Far East flights out of Anchorage in December 1999.
"There are more than just college students traveling between Anchorage and the RFE. There are also professionals here working on the Magadan oil and gas lease sales," Berliner said. "And if that takes off, we could be the staging grounds for that, too."
Berliner also indicated that the trade division is doing surveys and has hired research analysts to aid the private sector in making a decision to regain Alaska as a Russian gateway.
"Going to the RFE through Korea is not what we would want. We want Alaska to be the staging ground for the RFE," Berliner said.
Rob Stapleton is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce in Anchorage.
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